Just the Due Recompense of Your Error: Gay Men, the AIDS crisis, and the Unvaccinated

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April 1990, St. John’s Medical Center, Santa Monica.

“Hold still, because I’m not gonna numb your ass.”  Thirty-one years later, and I remember the contempt on the doctor’s face, just as I remember the Louisiana drawl.  He had curtly introduced himself as Dr. Dupree, and I had smiled and asked if he was any relation to Marcus.  (Even at my worst, maybe especially at my worst, I tried to feign bonhomie.) I got an eye roll and a glare in return.

Less than two hours earlier, after a fight with my fiancée, I had cut myself with a broken Coors bottle on the roof of my apartment building in Westwood. When I stumbled back into my room, pretending that all was well, my roommates called 911 while I sat down at my desk and bled upon my primitive word processor.  

I would need a few dozen stitches on my stomach, knee, and left forearm.  This was not the first time I had self-injured in a blind rage at myself, and it wouldn’t be the last. 

The stitching was agony, and I tried to relax into the pain.  Tears came to my eyes, and Dr. Dupree looked at me and snorted.  “You know who else is crying, boy?  The husband of a woman who died today after a car accident.  And rich college boys who throw themselves pity parties and end up clogging hospital beds piss me right off.  You have your whole life ahead of you and you’ll be fine.  Get some fucking therapy and go to AA and stay the hell out of my ER.”

At one point I yelped, and the exasperated Cajun muttered, “Your choice, son. Your choice.  Maybe the pain will help you remember.”

It did not help, and I’d be cutting and burning again soon enough, but Dr. Dupree did a splendid job of adding to my self-loathing.

November 1986, Berkeley, California.

I was 19, a sophomore at Cal, and working on the political campaign to defeat Proposition 64.  Prop 64 would have declared AIDS a communicable disease, and subjected all HIV-positive persons to indefinite quarantine.  The fear and loathing directed towards gay men was at its apex, as AIDS raged uncontained, exacting a heartbreaking death toll.

One of my college roommates was a conservative Christian.  (We had those at Berkeley, I promise.)  Chris was a premed student, and he argued with me about Proposition 64, about AIDS, and about homosexuality.  “People who don’t have gay sex or shoot drugs aren’t the ones who get AIDS,” Chris said.  “This isn’t the flu – this is people receiving the ‘due recompense of their error.’” 

When I blanched at that odd phrase, Chris pulled out his King James and showed me Romans 1:27:

Then the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet.

“Don’t you see, Hugo?”  Chris jabbed his finger at the text.  “When we do what is unnatural, we receive in ourselves the meet recompense of our error – we get what we asked for.  God isn’t doing this as punishment; it’s just the inevitable ‘cause and effect’ result of sin and disobedience.”

Chris knew I had sex with men as well as women. He couldn’t bring himself to confront me directly, so he used the first person plural instead of the second person singular, but the damage he inflicted was the same.

At 19, I already knew that the only way to deal with people like Chris was to change the subject, and we shifted to dorm gossip, but his words haunted me.  

What I remember best about Chris and Dr Dupree, all these years later, was their absolute absence of empathy towards those whom they had decided were undeserving of compassion.  For men like these, compassion was only rightly directed towards true innocents, and in their clean and precise moral universes, the innocent and the complicit could be easily distinguished.   Chris had his King James Version, and Dr. Dupree his exhausting, heartbreaking experience in the ER; both old boys were clear that the world was full of people who ought to know better, and those people deserved a little pain (or even death) as a consequence of their stubbornness, their self-involvement, or their lust.

You know where I’m going with this.  No doubt you are appalled at my college roommate’s bigotry.  I’m not sure whether you’re sympathetic or not to Dr. Dupree’s fury and frustration, but perhaps you think he took things a bit far.   Yet, how do you respond when the unvaccinated fall ill, or die?  Do you find yourself inadvertently quoting your own version of Romans 1:27?  It’s the due recompense of your error, cracker; play stupid games, you win stupid prizes!

Those of us old enough to remember the AIDS crisis remember how gay men and IV drug users were demonized and feared.  We remember how the media reminded us, over and over again, that rampant spread through the heterosexual and “normal” population was imminent because of the recklessness and stupidity of a small class of people who ought to have known better.  We remember how hard we had to fight to defeat an initiative that would have called for containment camps for the infected; we remember the calls to recriminalize sodomy in California.

In every major outbreak of disease in human history, one group gets declared “unclean.”  Someone must always be the scapegoat; someone must always be the reason that the innocent suffer and die. Gypsies, Jews, homosexuals, immigrants, the unvaccinated – there is always a group whose perversity or lack of hygiene renders them a danger to the rest of society.  There is always a group so stubborn, so foolish, so selfish that they must be either eradicated or exiled.

Make no mistake; I am not comparing vaccine mandates to the edicts of Nazi Germany. I am saying that I have seen this rage and lack of empathy before, and I know the harm it does.  Stitching me up without anesthesia did not, in fact, teach me a lesson – it only exacerbated my self-loathing and made me more mistrustful of the medical system.  I will never forget the self-righteous smugness with which so many conservative friends responded to the AIDS crisis – as my other friends died and I waited in terror for a diagnosis that never came.

You have your very strong feelings about vaccines and mandates.  You are almost certainly struggling with feelings of exasperation, and because you are human, perhaps sometimes your empathy fails you.  I’m not telling you you’re wrong to feel as you do.  I am telling you that the absence of empathy is never a virtue, nor an indicator of superior discernment.   I am telling you that we cannot allow our frustration and fear to rob us of our compassion.

I am asking you to look beyond the cramped and rigid binary of Deserving and Undeserving.  I am asking you to be kind, even when it’s desperately, desperately hard.

Postscript: I am friends with my college roommate Chris on Facebook.  He has long since left the church, though he has become a doctor. A few years ago, he sent me a message of apology, saying he knew he’d been very judgmental in college and hurt a lot of people.  I told him he did the best he could with the information he had, and that I always trusted that his heart was far more generous than his words.


Cody Jinks started out playing speed metal in north Texas, and then came to his senses and began to make some very good country records. His latest single was on repeat as I wrote this.

Money can't buy morе than it can
When you ain't got nothin' but somethin' to prove
The price is high for not givin' a damn
But when you don't, you ain't got nothin' to lose
It ain't hard to be a fool like me
All it cost me was everything